Interview: John Kricfalusi

If you were a child, teenager, or odd adult with a twisted sense of humor anywhere near a TV in the 90s, chances are you were tickled by John Kricfalusi (or the more spellcheck friendly moniker that he often goes by John K.). The man was responsible for Ren And Stimpy, Nickelodeon’s beloved absurdist cartoon known for selling kids logs, having animals sell adults rubber nipples, and yes sir, showing off a real horse. The show was filled with inner tension and cancelled before it’s time, yet remains a classic because well, there’s just nothing else like it. Though to be fair, there’s no one else quite like John K., either.

With the longtime animator coming to town for lectures and showcases at the annual Toronto Animation Arts Festival International this Saturday morning at 9am at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, we got a chance to chat with man behind that Mexican dog who craves pectoral implants and his dopey cat buddy. Kricfalusi opened up about his long and storied career in the field, diving into everything from personally changing how animation houses were run, to his predictably eccentric working relationship with underground animated filmmaker Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat, Wizards), his recent collaboration with The Simpsons, and all the things that hippies have ruined (hint: everything). John K. is quite a storyteller and not exactly afraid of letting backstage details slip out, so get ready for this one.

Dork Shelf: Who would you say were your primary influences, both in and out of animation?

John Kricfalusi: The classics like Popeye, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, early TV cartoons like Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones, Roger Ramjet, Beany and Cecil, magazine cartoons like Peanuts, B.C. Mad Magazine, Don Martin, and Marvel Comics – Jack Kirby especially.

DS: I was always intrigued by the fact that you worked with Ralph Bakshi quite a bit during your career because I thought there was a little bit of an underground comic/cartoon influence in Ren and Stimpy beyond the classic animation influences. Was that the case?

JK: Well, the films didn’t influence me. In fact, I wanted to do the opposite. (Laughs)

DS: In what way?

JK: Well, I wanted to do something that was cartoony and had a story and I sure didn’t want to do rotoscoping.

DS: So how did you end up working with him?

JK: Well, I was out of a job for a while in LA. I had been laid off from Filmation and TV season was over. I needed a job and I head that Bakshi was looking for someone, so I gritted my teeth, called the studio, and they brought me down for an interview. They had me drop of my portfolio at first, which kind of made me mad. The affrontery! Not to see me in person, this bum. So I dropped it off and then the secretary called me a few days later and said, “Ralph thinks your work is superlative.” And I said, “Ralph can pronounce superlative?” (laughs) She just let that roll off and called me down for an interview.

So I went down and Ralph was sitting in his office eating a giant bag of sunflower seeds. He’s a huge guy like 6 foot 4 or something like that and ways about 280 pounds. Like an ogre, right? He looks like he runs the mafia. So he’s grabbing fistfuls of sunflower seeds and shoving them into his face, chewing them up and spitting the seeds out all over the floor. He had a secretary and his art director there taking notes and Ralph was telling me he likes my drawings in his way. [Adopts a gruff New York accent] “They’re really fucking funny. You’re a real funny guy, aren’t ya? A wise ass.” Both the girls had clipboards taking notes looking very official and there’s Ralph swearing and spitting out sunflower seeds. He was trying to quit smoking I think, one of his many attempts and the sunflower seeds were his replacement. So anyways Ralph told me that he wanted to bring animated shorts back to the movie theaters.

DS: Really?

John Kricfalusi - Ren & Stimpy - F2JK: Yeah, he’d even made one. But he wasn’t having much fun because he was coming up with all of the ideas himself and wanted a partner. He wanted something to knock gags around with, stuff like that. So he told the girls, “Take Johnny down to the moviola, show ‘em the fucking film we just made. I made a cartoon, I want your opinion. I want to know exactly what you think. Don’t be a yes man. You can tell me.” So I go down the hall to this moviola and they show me this film The Cigarette and the Weed, it was about a minute long or something and I couldn’t tell what was going on. It was a weed on a street corner in downtown New York and a cigarette rolls by and they have a conversation or something. Who knows what it was about? I couldn’t follow it at all. It was only like a minute long, but it was the longest minute of my life. So the cartoon finishes and I looked at the girls white faced because I didn’t know what to do.

So we were walking back to Ralph’s office and all of a sudden the hall is fifty times longer than it was on the way to the moviola. I can see the doorway and see and hear the sunflower seeds spitting across the room. I just wanted to grab my portfolio and run out the door, but the girls led me back down the hall and into his office. Ralph spits out a bunch of seeds and says, “Alright. What’d you think of it? Tell me the truth now.” The girls were looking all serious ready to take notes and I said, “Ralph do you want my honest opinion?” He said, “Yeah, give me your fucking honest opinion.” So I said, “That was the worst thing that I ever saw.” All of a sudden he spit out a million sunflower seeds all over the room and the girls looked frightened, they didn’t know what to do. Ralph starts screaming at the top of his lungs, “What the fuck?! No one has ever said that to me! So you fucking hated it, eh?” He turns to the girls and says, “Hire this son of a bitch! I’m going to teach you a fucking lesson!” So he gave me a job.

DS: Did you go straight into The New Adventures Of Mighty Mouse together from there?

JK: No, no. this was about 6 or 7 years before Mighty Mouse. He hired me to work on these short cartoons for him and I started drawing up storyboards. But it only lasted about a month. He couldn’t sell it to anybody and gave up. He paid me off and said, “Don’t worry Johnny, you’ll be back in two weeks.” That’s his way of firing people.

DS: Now, with him having gone through plenty of his own troubles as an independent animated filmmaker, did he offer you any advice on how to survive in that world?

JK: No. (laughs) But about a year later he called me up to come and work on something else. It was a live action movie making fun of Star Wars. He wanted me to help him write that so that lasted a few months and then he gave me another two-week vacation that lasted five years.

DS: So when did that Mighty Mouse cartoon you two did together come about?

JK: Well, in about 1985 he called me up after I’d come back from Taiwan supervising The Jetsons for Hanna-Barbara. He had retired, but he decided to come back and called me up, “Hey John, how the fuck you doing?” He wanted to do Saturday morning cartoons. I was like, how the hell is Ralph going to do Saturday morning cartoons. His stuff is all bloody and dirty, that’s what he does. So he says, “We’re gonna’ be partners Johnny, 50/50. We’ll open a studio. You and me all the way.” He gave he this sales pitch for about 90 minutes on the phone. I was like, “Ok Ralph, call me when you get here.” I didn’t think he would do anything that he promised. He was always promising stuff to everybody. You know, “two weeks.” So, I’m about to hang up and he says, “One more thing Johnny, describe yourself to me.” I said, “Well, skinny about 6 feet tall almost. Brown hair.” He goes, “Oh yeah. That’s you, that’s you. Seeya tomorrow partner!” So the next morning at about 7am he’s pounding on my door. He was renting some space at an animation studio in town that was producing a Chipmunks movie. So, he took a couple offices and we were developing show ideas for Saturday morning cartoons.

DS: Who for?

JK: He went out to every network. At that time there were only 3 networks that did Saturday morning cartoons. It was CBS, ABC, and NBC. Maybe Fox, I can’t remember. Anyways, he managed to get a development deal with every network. I don’t know how he did it. Ralph’s an amazing salesman. So, he got a development deal to develop two shows for every network. So basically you go off and create characters and do a show bible. That’s what we did for the summer basically. Actually, we did a couple of other things before that. We were working on a primetime animated series and I said, “why don’t you star in it? We’ll call it Ralph’s Playhole.” He’d be the host and he was going to introduce cartoons with a puppet. We were going to do heartwarming scenes with Ralph the 6 foot 4, 300 pound ogre and a puppet. That was going to make people cry. But anyways, that didn’t sell. Then summer came around we worked on those Saturday morning cartoons for those networks that never got picked up.

DS: Have you worked on many shows that never got picked up?

JK: Oh yeah, tons of them, especially then. In 80s the networks weren’t interested in original shows with original characters. They thought that was too risky. They thought kids wouldn’t understand new characters just out of thin air. There were only three kinds of shows that they would buy in the 80s. One was cartoons that were based on live action shows. There was a Happy Days cartoon, a Lavern and Shirley in the Army cartoon, a Gary Colman cartoon. They were all awful and I worked on all of those. Then there were cartoons that were based on toys, He-Man and G.I. Joe and stuff like that. Then the other cartoons were rehashes of cartoons that were popular 30 years earlier, like The New Crummy Adventures of Popeye, The Shitty Adventures of Tom and Jerry, The Badly Drawn Spiderman or something. That was it. If you walked into a network with new characters not based on anything, which I did on many occasions, they’d look at you like you were crazy. See, network executives are not creative people at all. The ones in charge of cartoons were all housewives back then. They were secretaries or someone shoved into the Saturday morning cartoon department because the live-action executives didn’t want to go slumming. So they got the secretary who used to be hot and was no longer hot to look after the kiddie shows. These women hated cartoonists. They hated anything to do with imagination and creativity. They thought cartoons had to be good for you and their solution for how to do that was make them really crappy but have a moral at the end. They had to be drawn like shit, written really badly, and then they had to tell you how to live your life.

DS: When you were working on those remakes did you ever do anything that reminded you of the old cartoons you loved that the shows were supposed to be based on?

JK: Well, there were a couple of times that I got lucky. They were doing The New Crummy Adventures of Tom and Jerry and Droopy or something like that and I was in the layout department. That’s where you pose out the characters before you ship them overseas and I actually got to draw the way I wanted, which was amazing for Filmation. At the time Filmation was the worst studio that ever existed. The cartoons were horrible and the way they were structured was even worse. Whatever you drew was not going to look like that on TV because it would get watered down by 50 other artists and traced afterwards. But I had fun on it because the supervised me and let me draw what I wanted. I worked on a lot of other horrible shows though. It was depressing.

DS: So did you not get much freedom at any of your animation jobs before Ren and Stimpy?

JK: I sort of worked my way towards it. The first show where I actually had any kind of control, what I drew showed up on screen, and I actually enjoyed watching it was The Jetsons. Basically, all I really wanted to do was design all of the incidental characters for new stories. I had been doing character designs for shows. It was a much easier job that doing storyboards or layouts. I was drawing really fast, so I could do five or six shows a week doing character design and made a lot of money doing that. But then I heard that Hanna-Barbara was going do relaunch The Jetsons. The guy who designed The Jetsons Ed Benedict was my hero. He designed The Flintstones as well, all those shows that really influenced me when I was a little kid. I knew Ed too, so I was dying to work on The Jetsons, but I just wanted to do designs. I knew if I did anything else, I would just be miserable because nothing would turn out like I wanted.

But, long story short they liked my designs and told me I could do it if I also supervised the layouts in Taiwan. I really didn’t want to do that and eat cat meat and stuff, but that was the deal. So they sent me out there and it was my job to create a layout department overseas, which made some people mad, including me. But they told me I could draw whatever I wanted, so I went over there and created a new way of doing layouts. Normally the way it was done in the 80s is that artists were a glorified Xerox, you’d take the model sheets of the characters and trace them into the scenes. It looked stiff and horrible. Nobody ever made an expression, nobody made a pose. So when I went over there they gave me a bunch of artists and told me to train them. So I got the audio cassettes of the voice tracks and I’d play them for the artists. They didn’t speak English, but they heard the inflections, so I’d have the storyboards out and explain everything through a translator. They’d start laughing as soon as they understood what was going on. So we started drawing all of the poses to match the voice inflections, which was completely unheard of in the 80s. That hadn’t been done since the 50s. It seems like an obvious thing that you’d do every cartoon, you want the voice and the drawings to match. But they didn’t match in the 70s and 80s. That was a new concept.

So all of a sudden then animation was coming back, the characters looks alive, and they were stunned at Hanna-Barbara. The characters had emotions. I actually got in trouble, but it made me realize there was a way to make Saturday morning cartoons that didn’t look as crummy as the ones that were around. Instead of using this assembly line system that used where nobody talked to each other and everyone uses separately, I thought if I could put together a Saturday morning cartoon that uses the unit system like they had at Warner Brothers it would be something interesting.

DS: When did you get to do that?

JK: Years later when Ralph came along and sold Mighty Mouse he didn’t have a studio, so we had to start one from scratch. I called all my friends from all the different studios and they all quit. So the next week we had 35 animators in the studio. Ralph had no idea how to make Saturday morning cartoons. He had made them in the 60s, but the whole system had changed. So I just put in my system from The Jetsons and did it in the States. We did all the key poses ourselves, which was unheard of at the time. The other thing was that it was the first time I’d been involved with writing a show and we did all of the shows ourselves. I didn’t want to write scripts at all. I wanted to throw out the whole script system and just write with storyboards like they used to do. We couldn’t convince the network to go that far, but it was the first time that they let cartoonists write their own stories. All of us were visual and we were all drawing anyways while we were writing, so we would sketch first and then type. That was a huge revolution. And I was directing the voices too. In the old system there was no such thing as a director. Instead, they had department heads. There was a storyboard department head, then the script department head, the layout head, and then they had a voice director who directs the voices for all the shows in the studio. Now, the voice director doesn’t know anything about the stories, because she didn’t work on them or anything. She’s seeing the script for the first time that day and abstractly out of nothing telling the actors how to read the lines. It was a crazy system, made no sense at all. So I was involved in everything and when I directed voices I knew exactly what I wanted. The voice actors weren’t used to that, they thought that was weird too because I knew what I wanted.

So all of a sudden Mighty Mouse comes out and it’s completely different than anything else on Saturday morning cartoons, totally different. The main reason is that it had a good production system and put the cartoonists back in charge, which shocked everybody. Then the next year, people who had the crummy production system starting imitating Mighty Mouse superficially, but they couldn’t figure out how we did it. They used the old system and tried to write wacky visual stories, but they couldn’t make the pictures match the voices and match the story, which was what I was doing under the director system. There were some Mighty Mouse episodesthat worked and others that were kind of chaotic. That was because it was a bunch of creative people with their shackles freed. We just went crazy that first season, we didn’t know what was going to work and what wasn’t going to work. You had to experiment and try things. Some worked and some didn’t.

John Kricfalusi - Ren & Stimpy

DS: The show wasn’t particularly successful outside of that animation community though, right?

JK: Yeah, Mighty Mouse only lasted a year and a half before it was cancelled, but I started thinking to myself, if I ever get a chance again, I’m going to fix the mistakes from Mighty Mouse. I’ll keep going with what worked and eliminate what went wrong. Some of the stories were just abstract for abstract’s sake. They were nonlinear and went nowhere. Plus we didn’t have a central character, even though its called Mighty Mouse, Mighty Mouse is hardly in it. And he never was. Even in the original cartoons he would show up in the last 30 seconds, beat up the cat, and save the day. With ours, he was in the beginning of the cartoon and then I would write him out of it so I could create my own characters and work on them. But Ralph would never let me repeat any of my characters. Once I came up with a character I would want to develop him, but Ralph got bored very easily and he was fickle.

By the time Ren and Stimpy came around and I sold it, I decided to fix all of those problems. I decided to focus on Ren and Stimpy and really develop their personalities. They weren’t just going to be abstract crazy stories, they were going to be stories that were motivated by their personalities. Just in general, I wanted to have more control over the cartoons. And we made the final steps to change the system on that show. We wrote everything on storyboard like Warner Brothers, ditched the script stage. That was the beginning of what they called “creative-driven” cartoons which lasted through the 90s and then was abandoned again.

DS: So, if you had that amount of freedom to set up the machine at Ren and Stimpy, when did the problems begin with Nickelodeon? Did you get a couple episodes in before they started getting nervous?

JK: It was right from the beginning. We were in LA and there was really only one executive and that was Vanessa Coffey. She had to supervise three shows, Doug, Rugrats, and Ren And Stimpy. So she kind of had her hands full and wanted to help, so they brought in Mitch Kriegman who had created some show. He was going to be their story expert on their end who would critique our storylines. He didn’t get anything that we were doing. He would get really mad and say things like “I don’t understand what’s going on here, John. Where do Ren and Stimpy live anyways?” I said, “Well, in which episode?” and he was like, “That’s just what I’m talking about! In one episode they’re in a trailer, in another episode they’re in the Old West and now they’re in space. How the hell did they get to space?!” I said, “In a rocket.” He’d scream, “Where’d they get the rocket?!” “Well, I drew it.”

He would just blow up at the stupidest things and turn to Vanessa and say, “Look, look he’s making fun of me. He’s just going to confuse the kids. They won’t know what’s going on.” I said, “What are you talking about? Kids watch cartoons. Bugs Bunny is always in a different place, same with Daffy Duck or The Three Stooges. I didn’t make this up. It’s classic comedy. It’s character comedy. You plug the characters into different situations and see what happens.” He said, “Well that’s different!” I said, “How is it different?” He said, “Kids know who Bugs Bunny is already!” I said, “What in the womb? It’s genetically bred into them. At some time in their lives, they see Bugs Bunny for the first time and then they see him for the second time and realize he’s in another place and instantly accept it because kids aren’t idiots.” They don’t have executive minds. They don’t try to analyze everything. They either like it or they don’t like it and that’s what we tried to do with Ren and Stimpy.

He never got anything that we did. So early on Vanessa fired him and replaced him with Will McRobb, who was nicer to us and was more on our side, but he was still always asking logical questions. Sometimes he’d ask us to explain why something made sense and I’d always say, “Because it’s a cartoon.” He hated that. That answer drove him crazy. I grew up and that stuff, no one ever questioned any of that crap. Like Popeye, “Why does spinach make him strong and throw a battleship around the world three times? Does that make any sense to you? Then why are you asking me to make sense?” It makes sense in a cartoon world. So anyway there was more to it, but that’s the general idea. They would approve things and change their mind, but the work was already shipped overseas and people were working on it. I’d say, “We can’t, they’re already working on it. They’ve been paid their first payment and if we start a new cartoon from scratch now, it’s going to be late.” They never could figure that out. They thought that cartoons just materialized from thin air.

DS: So, when you went back to Ren and Stimpy for the Adult Party version, was it a similar situation except there was always concern that it wasn’t raunchy enough for adults rather than being too much for kids?

JK: Yeah, in a weird way it was almost the opposite situation. This time they put it on a primetime slot and said, “John we want adults to watch this. So put stuff in for adults.” I said, “Well, adults are already watching the original, can’t we just keep doing it like that.” They were like, “No, you’ve got to do something to make it more adult.”

I didn’t know what to do so we put in more dirty jokes and more blatant ones. That was always kind of in the originals, but it was more of a double entendre thing. Then they didn’t air it! So we did what they told us to do and then they wouldn’t air it. Executives are crazy. “Look, we already have the audience. I’ve done it before. Just let me do it and collect the money afterwards.” They don’t want to make money, it’s crazy. You have to force them to make money against their will. Spongebob, same thing. The executives hated it and wanted to cancel it and then the ratings came in and they were huge. So those executives that tried to kill it, noe when they go around applying for new jobs, the first thing on their resume is “I greenlit Spongebob.” Even if that was true, which it isn’t, what kind of a talent is that. “Uhhhh…I green light things.”  Really, did you go to school to learn that? What kind of a talent is that. So you’re skill is, I didn’t stand in the way of the person who has talent. Why even pay someone to not stand in the way? The whole system is insane.

DS: So how does that affect your opinion of Ren and Stimpy as a whole now since so much of it had to be fought over and compromised? Is it a situation where the best episodes that you did are the ones that caught on and were memorable or are there things that you were never happy with that were also successful?

DS: Well, to tell you the truth, I can’t watch anything that I do. I only see the mistakes (laughs). I just want them to be better. One of the things that we did on Ren and Stimpy that no one was doing at the time was that we would let the show evolve. Each episode looked different than the previous one. Not only did we have lots off different storylines, but everything kept changing and evolving. The designs changed, the way they were acted got richer. It’s like watching cartoons from the 30s, Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie looks a lot different than he did in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice because they let characters evolve. They don’t do that anymore. Now you have to create everything on day one. You have to create all of the designs. Each character is only allowed to have four expressions and then for the next 20 years if the show happens to last, it looks exactly the same. Like Family Guy today, is it any different than it was ten years ago? It’s exactly the same. Bugs Bunny changed in every episode. He got better and better and better. That was happening on Ren and Stimpy, if you look at the second season is a huge leap forward in production value just because we’d learned from trial and error. You get better by practicing. Unless somebody tells you to stop drawing funny, which is what they do everywhere else.

DS: I think the best stuff I’ve seen on The Simpsons in the last few years are the couch gags that they let you and Bill Plympton each do on your own. How did that come about?

JK: They had the idea that they wanted to do one in my style, so Matt Groening and Al Jean invited me down to the studio. I had lunch with them and did a bunch of sketches of how I would draw them following the same theory of Ren and Stimpy. Even in the cartoon they looked different in every scene. I did these crazy caricatures and they’ve loved it. They said, “Alright, go do a storyboard.” So I did, they loved it and they were going to give it off to their production company. I told them if you do that then it will just look like everything else you do and no one will be able to tell that I did it. They didn’t understand that at first, that my decades of experience told me that if you don’t have production system that encourages creativity, it won’t happen. Those people have been going off model sheets for 20 years, they aren’t suddenly going to be able to throw that out. They’ve been beaten down for 20 years and trace model sheets. So, somehow I talked them out of that and did the whole thing basically in my house. I hired a couple of assistants and we did the whole thing ourselves.

DS: Have you ever had any discussions with Adult Swim—

JK: They call me all the time. They’ve been calling me for six years, but nothing’s happened yet. I did some station i.d.s for them last year and we’re going to show them at the festival this weekend.

DS: At this point, do you have any interest in trying to join up with a show like The Simpsons or Family Guy or are you pretty well committed to doing your own thing?

JK: I don’t mind doing shorts for them and stuff like that. We’ve been talking about maybe doing a Halloween episode. I don’t have a story idea yet, but I like to do something like a 30s spooky jazz cemetery cartoon.

DS: Like the old Bettie Boops?

JK: Yeah, with Cab Calloway. That’s what I’d like to do. It would be with witches and goblins and ghosts and stuff. Really classic old Halloween. Supernatural Halloween. Halloween seems to have changed into slasher movies instead of being based in the supernatural. I like the old school Halloween, so that’s what I’ll do for them if it happens.

DS: Do you have any contemporary animated films or TV shows that you enjoy now or do you always go back to the classic stuff?

JK: Pretty much everything I like is from the 20s to the mid-60s. 1968 is my cut off line for most things (laughs). There are a couple of exceptions, like I loved All in the Family in the 1970s, but the hippies pretty much ruined everything for me.